I don’t know what I like, but I know what art is.
—Lucky Mann (Nick Nolte)
The films of Alan Rudolph haven’t changed much since the 1970s when he was an Altman protégé and directed the quirky ensemble piece Welcome to L.A. (1976). Much like Altman’s, his characters embody a ‘70s hip glibness. Unlike Altman, who typically encourages improvisation and overlapping dialogue, Rudolph’s scripts are filled with Brilliant Statements that fairly cry out for quoting. He even likes to leave some dead space at the end of some of these sentences, so that audiences can have a moment to gasp in appreciation.
But Rudolph’s films can falter under the weight of such self-important cunning and shallowness. Seldom are they total hits or misses, but sites where pretentious quirkiness rubs up against wonderful acting and some genuinely profound moments that make up for the artificial gloss—most of the time.
This is true of Afterglow, one of Rudolph’s more successful efforts. The story concerns Lucky, the Plumber (Nick Nolte), who comes to fix the pipes for Marianne Byron (Lara Flynn Boyle), the neglected young wife of a prick named Jeffrey (Jonny Lee Miller). Marianne wants to have a baby, but Jeff is too busy advancing his career and wallowing in a mix of self-love and self-loathing to want even to touch her. Marianne sees in Lucky the chance to get, well, lucky (that sort of humor pervades the film). At the same time, Lucky’s wife Phyllis (Julie Christie), a washed-up B-movie actress, spends her days searching for their runaway daughter, drinking, and watching VHS tapes of movies she made with her one true love, a dead co-star. She permits Lucky’s frequent infidelities, but still spies on him. During one such reconnaissance, at the Ritz Carlton Hotel bar, she runs into Jeffrey and they start an affair of their own.
And so, the doubling begins. Phyllis and Lucky’s daughter (who is about Marianne’s age) ran away from home eight years earlier, to escape their drunken bickering and infidelities. Phyllis’ anguish over the missing daughter mirrors Marianne’s desperate desire to have a child. Marianne mirrors Lucky and Phyllis’ daughter, seeking a stable father-daughter relationship. And of course, Phyllis’ affair with Jeffrey is a direct response to Lucky and Marianne’s affair.
As these complications suggest, Rudolph’s films can seem overwritten. All the symbolism can seem so superficial as to function as its own Cliff’s Notes. Take, for example, the Byrons, whose very name is charged with literary pretentiousness; their ultra-modern apartment is comprised of sterile surfaces until Lucky arrives to paint clouds on the walls and create new doors for the yet-to-be conceived baby’s room. The space is a perfect metaphor for a Rudolph film—an artificial environment within which he invites actors to create something “real.”
Lucky and Phyllis are still charming enough to lure the youngsters into bed, but they understand their own situations. Christie especially conveys this duality, alternating easily between timeless class and world-weary glamour at the Ritz Carlton and hanging around defeated on the couch at home, watching her tapes over and over. The film carefully considers such fading glory and dwindling chances. We see it in Lucky’s eyes when Marianne fawns over him at the hotel bar. He keeps his charm up, but we realize he’s just trying to make her happy; he can’t help but see the inevitable end. Similarly, Phyllis allows herself to be charmed by Jeffrey’s bravado, but it’s a compromise. She must choose to lower her expectations or stay home alone. That both seek solace in illusion is both sad and somehow heroic.
Ultimately, the film’s shortcomings are redeemed by Nolte and Christie (who was nominated for an Academy Award), and the worlds of charm, depth, and pain they bring to their parts. Rudolph’s films have been rescued time and time again by great actors who ground his sometimes unbearably clever situations. In Afterglow, these two old pros fairly explode Rudolph’s artificial mise-en-scène to reveal the tattered but still sparkling treasures beneath.